Saturday, December 17, 2011

Failure to Connect

I am sitting at my daughter’s basketball practice, laptop open, desperately trying to get a Wi-Fi connection.  All my feeble attempts at hacking through an unsecured network fail miserably.  I feel hopeless as I stare at the “No connection” message flashing on the screen.

And then it dawns on me.  Is Wi-Fi really what I need to feel connected? Why am I so desperate to get online?  Is it to login to my online classes and tend to students’ “I need this question answered RIGHT NOW!” demands? Or to keep my Facebook window open so as not to miss an all-important status update? Or is it to check in with my three email accounts just in case I’m desperately needed by someone?

A small, sarcastic laugh escapes my lips as my bench neighbor looks at me oddly and then slides away a few inches.  Now, I am shaking with internal laughter.  My daughter turns from her dribbling practice, smiles, and waves.  And it hits me.  For the past several months, I’ve been going through the motions of living while truly being trapped in the online world.

I had become so conditioned to only feel connected with others by constantly being online that it was a sudden wake-up call to realize that there is life outside the cyber window.  My laughter dies down almost as quickly as it began.  I’m laughing at myself and my own imagined self-importance. The false feeling of constant connection in the online world pales in comparison to looking around and watching my daughter proudly shoot from the free-throw line.  Hearing the whoosh of the ball as it slides seamlessly through the net makes my heart flutter more than any “you’ve got mail” message ever could.  Checking Yahoo News and joining online protests, petitions, and causes can’t hold a candle to seeing my daughter’s teammates clap each other on the back and high-five one another with giddy excitement.  Being online can’t compare to seeing, hearing, sensing, touching, and tasting in REAL life. 

Just as this revelation dawns on me, I hear a little “ding” on my phone letting me know I’ve got an email message waiting.  I resist the urge to grab it and check.  My fingers are itching.  One… Two… Three…I delay a few seconds longer and then can’t hold myself back.  I grab the phone and open the message…another petition lamenting Lowes’ discriminatory stance against the “All-American Muslim” show on TLC. 

I can’t help but feel the giggle gurgling inside me again.  Here I am, poised to respond with a raving rant of self-righteous indignation when I realize that since basketball season began, I have never once stopped to introduce myself to the other parents.  I have never taken the time to make an effort to get to know them.  Why? Not because I am an unfriendly person, but because I have been too consumed with always being “connected” online.  Even the connection I used to feel in writing seems to have faded in favor of the all-consuming cyber interactions.

Embarrassed and a bit sheepish, I put down the phone, close the laptop and turn to my bench neighbor.  “Hi, I’m Suzy.”  A raised eyebrow, a slight pause, and an imperceptible bob of the head… and before I know it, Ann is reaching out to shake my hand and eagerly discuss how well the girls are doing this season.

Basketball practice is wrapping up and Ann is packing her things… I can’t help but sneak back into my laptop.  Yes, I’m addicted.  But, with my fingers flying over the keys, I’m desperately seeking another connection.  Not an online one this time, but a connection through writing. 

And I find it.  The knowledge that someone, somewhere may find this post, read it, and nod in understanding...that’s some powerful connection.

Connecting to the world without Wi-Fi… what a concept!
          --Suzy Ismail

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Blood Red Road, by Moira Young (A Book Review)

Summary:  Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome for a new generation, only with a chick as the one kicking post-apocalyptic tail feathers.

The only world Saba knows is Silverlake, a dried up land where life is hard and food is scarce.  Strange, cloaked riders on horseback appear on the heels of a wicked dust storm, capturing her twin brother Lugh and stealing him away.  Saba, knowing almost nothing but stories of the world beyond her home, vows to get him back.  Her journey lands her into a world of violence and corruption.  She teams up with renegade Jack and a girl gang of insurrectionists called the Free Hawks.  Together they endeavor to rescue Lugh and depose a corrupt king. 

Sound the trumpets!  Fire the canons!  Cue the choir of angels!  It’s finally happened.  You have no idea how much I’ve longed for this day.  I’d almost given up.  But Ms. Moira Young has done the impossible for me—she created a female protagonist that I loved from the first page.  Saba.  This is not a story about a girl, quaking in her espadrilles, who sits back and watches the boy save her repeatedly while she nibbles on her cotton candy pink glitter nail polished fingertips.  Yessssssss!!  J

I loved this book, I loved this book, I loved this book.  Whew!  I feel so much better to have that off my chest.  Blood Red Road is now located in the very short stack of books I will read again one day.  I lost track of how many times I moaned and laughed out loud. I truly can’t remember having this much fun reading any book.  Ever.

All that gushing aside, there are a couple of things I should prepare you for.  This book is written without the use of quotations.  Glancing at other reviews, it seems to have taken some people a number of pages to adjust to this.  I confess, for me, it was easy and refreshing.  If you find yourself initially frustrated, I urge you to push forward. You’ll catch on.  This is a post-apocalyptic/dystopic world where no one goes to school.  They have their own verbiage, slight variations to English slang.  Perhaps a sample from the book to demonstrate?  Here goes:

He throws his head back an curses unner his breath. Stands up. Whatever I say now, he says, you ain’t gonna believe me. 

Alright, so one of the reasons I loved this book so much is that I am a Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome fan  (This admission will unfortunately clue you in to my age).  I have a sneaking suspicion that Ms. Young is as well.  I’d go so far as to suppose she has an old Beyond Thunderdome movie poster hanging up somewhere with a lipstick kiss on a youthful Mel Gibson’s cheek.  J  This story also involves a bit of cage fighting and I confess, any time I read a fight scene, a crazed crowd cheered from the recesses of my brain, “Two men en-tah, one man leaves.”

This is the point in my review where I offer up some tidbit of criticism, as no author is perfect and the art of writing is a continual refining process…nope, I got nothing.  This is  story with action, adventure, romance, drama, tension, tears,  plot and characters I can’t get enough of.  Fans of The Hunger Games will find plenty to get excited about here. 

Here’s the part of my review where I was going to implore Hollywood to add this to the list of YA fiction it scoops up for the big screen.  But then a little birdie whispered in my ear that my wish is already coming true.  Who you ask?  Why, Ridley Scott.  Oooo…I’m all aquiver.  Check it out:

Parental note:  Some cussing.

As I end this book review, cue the guitar and keyboard.  Sing it, Tina Turner.  “We don’t need another heeeeero,  We don’t need to know the waaaay home.  All we want is—” Ms. Moira Young to write quickly.  I’m ready for the next book.  Like, now. 

            --Suzi Ryan

Monday, October 31, 2011

Popular by Alissa Grosso (A Book Review)

Hamilton Best is beautiful and perfect, the queen bee of Fidelity High, attended to by her worker bees, The Clique.  Her posted guest lists to her fabulous parties leave students either jubilantly bouncing off the lockered hallways or weeping and gnashing their teeth in the lav.  You know you’ve arrived when Hamilton takes notice of you.  But all is not well amongst the clique—Olivia, Nordica, Zelda, and Shelly.  Each has her own agenda and Hamilton is not on it.  But Hamilton has a secret, one only known by her boyfriend, Alex.  And it might just have the power to undo them all. 

Popular is told in first person through six people’s alternating points of view: Hamilton, Olivia, Nordica, Zelda, Shelly, and Alex.  I picked up this book at a conference and didn’t have the slightest clue what to expect.  All I could tell was that it wasn’t my typical read (not a bad thing, per se).  This is probably the most POV’s in one story that I’ve ever read and I confess, a couple of times I scratched my head and wondered if there was a point.  There is.  Go with it. 

What Ms. Grasso effectively manages to do is create a sense of impending portent.  I knew “something” was going to happen. That mood is what kept me turning the pages.  I guessed that it would be big and bad…though it ended up not being any of my initial imaginings. That’s a good thing.  Would it be bragging if I say I figured it out ahead of time, but barely?  (I am SO biting back a 1999 movie quote right now, it’s almost painful. But it could be a spoiler if you’re familiar with the movie…so I shall refrain.  But feel free to contact me if you’re curious)  ;)

A note of critical analysis, as always.  This story is told through a lot of first person internal narration. We’re camped inside the characters’ heads much of the time, not necessarily a bad thing but I thought that the “voice” of each of the characters seemed to be a bit mature, considering none of these kids seemed quite qualified to be pre-ordering a maroon Harvard hoodie.   

My favorite part of the book: It ended differently than it began (in a good way).  I love when music does that.  I love when life does that. A literary Sour Patch Kid. This was where the surprise factor came in for me. That’s the part I didn’t see coming.  But it ended the way I want all my books to end.  Me with a content smile on my face. 

Parental concerns:  Cussing.  A couple of non-descript kisses.  That’s all folks.  J
          --Suzi Ryan

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Finding the Right Words, Reflections on the heartbreak of 9/11

It’s after midnight on September 11th.  In just a few hours, the clocks will strike 8:46 a.m. marking a decade’s passing of the unimaginable.  For the last month, I have been thinking of this very night… wondering what I would be doing, how I would be remembering, and maybe more importantly, what I would be writing.

A blog post, an article, or even a journal entry seemed in order.  Over the past few weeks, I struggled to find words that would articulate what I had to say.  Strange as it may seem, the usual rambling writer in me stayed stubbornly silent.  My poised fingers refused to cooperate in creating a stellar account worthy of commemorating the lives lost and the radical changes that our nation underwent that day.

Now, in the eleventh hour, as I sit staring at my blank laptop screen lamenting the lack of words for such a critical occasion, it suddenly dawns on me as to why I cannot write.  For the past few months… no, for the past few years… I have written about 9/11 and its aftermath out of a sense of obligation. Whether writing about the tragedy, or about being Muslim in America post 9/11, or about the painful loss of lives, my writing often felt like a duty, both required and expected.  I developed a weighted sense of responsibility that urged me to write statements staunchly opposing terrorism, denouncing the hijackers, and lamenting the slaughter mainly from the point of view of a Muslim Arab-American.

In all these writings, though, I always felt like there was a missing element.  Something in my words just didn’t feel right.  I couldn’t bring myself to write about my own experiences or my own reflections of 9/11.  I never wrote about how years before that fateful day, I travelled daily through the World Trade Center on the Path train during my commute to my first internship in the city. I never mentioned how giddy I felt gawking at the majesty of the buildings the first time I laid eyes on them.  I never shared the sense of pride I had of working in a city that I had fallen in love with.

 I couldn’t bring myself to write about the sickness in my stomach as I watched the towers collapse on the news while holding my newborn safely at home several miles away from the scene.  I never shared the inexplicable worry that shot through me as I wondered if the friendly pizza man in the WTC Sbarro’s ever got out okay.  I never wrote about my own sense of sadness after learning that friends I’d worked with had lost lives that day.

And then it clicked.  I couldn’t write about 9/11 today because for so long I had set up a clear distinction… a barrier between emotion and obligation.  My writing on the topic embodied this separation.  As explanation usurped emotion, I never articulated my own feelings of humanity or my shared sense of loss.  I bought into the mediated distinction of the Muslim “other” and neglected to focus on the communal sentiment of a human being sharing the desolation of unbelievable tragedy.  In trying so hard to avoid being viewed as an outsider, my defensive mode of writing did just the opposite. 

As the clock creeps closer and closer towards marking the ten years that passed since the tragedy of 9/11, I can finally write.  I can let go of the need to find the “perfect” words because there are no words that can erase such deep wounds.  I can focus less on what to write and more on what to do. 

My nation is in mourning today for the loss of lives here and abroad after the senseless heartbreak of 9/11.  As an American… no, as a human… I know what I should do today.  Writing empty words in an attempt to honor the memories of so many is not enough.  Breaking down self-imposed barriers through actions is a much more potent reminder of the beauty of our country, our communities, and the people we lost.  Strengthening the bonds of humanity by helping others today shows respect and compassion borne of the deep sympathy that was shared on the day that changed our world ten years ago.  For me, the best form of commemoration on 9/11 is a day spent helping others-- hand-in-hand, un-alienated from my country, my people, and my world. 

How will you remember?

May the lives we lost on 9/11 serve as a memory to strengthen our human bonds.  May the souls all rest in peace.  And may the families and friends of loved ones find comfort and consolation in the hearts of their communities.

          --Post by Suzy Ismail

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Forever, by Maggie Stiefvater (A book review)

Forever is the third and final installment of The Wolves of Mercy Falls.  This is where I normally do a brief synopsis of the book but I can’t effectively do that without giving away the ending of the second book, Linger.  And since I want people to read this series spoiler free, let me just sum up:  These books are about people who change into wolves  and then back again, all outside of the individual’s will, which lead to some interesting and heart breaking scenes.  In Ms. Stiefvater’s mythos, lycanthropy is a disease that can be transmitted via bites, but one that just might have a cure.  This book is told through alternating POV’s of Sam, Grace, Cole and Isabel. Okay, so glad to get that out of the way….
Now, I’m about to do something I’ve yet to do so far in my reviews:  GUSH.  I.  Loved. This.  Book.  This series contains the hands-down swooniest, sigh-worthy couple in YA paranormal: Sam and Grace.  Sam—A guy who sings, plays guitar, writes his own music AND works in a book store…be still my beating heart.  And I’m known to be harsh on my female protagonists, but I am quite fond of Grace, with her ‘what you see is what you get’ sensibility. Plus, she loves coffee.  A girl after my own heart.  And Cole? Former front man of a world famous band, one who is quite accustomed to abusing his body, running down demons from his past and needing to prove himself.  Ah, my other weakness—a redemption story.  Lastly, ice princess Isabel with the chip on her shoulder larger than the National Debt.  I confess, I didn’t care for her much in Shiver and Linger, but she finally grew on me in this book.  Hats off to Ms. Stiefvater for effective character development. 
But what do I love the most? Maggie’s writing.  One of my top two favorite YA authors (Cassandra Clare is the other, in case you were curious), Maggie writes effortless, flawless lyrical prose like few I’ve read. Most people who attempt lyrical only achieve one thing:  trite, over-worked,  hyperbolic drivel plagued by a surplus of metaphors and similes.  Contrastingly, Maggie’s writing is well-balanced, thoughtful, beautiful and so swooooooony.  I can’t even begin to tell you how many sighs I uttered over the two days it took me to polish off this novel.  And, deep dark confession—I cried my eyes out.  Some who know me might ask: ‘what else is new?’  Okay, yeah, I’ve been known to cry over as little as a Pampers commercial, but I’m quite jaded when it comes to books.  It takes much to draw literary-induced tears from me.  But I had the whole delightful rabbit hole experience with this book.  One where I tagged off parental responsibility to my hubby, grabbed a box of tissues, dashed into my bedroom before my kids could see my girlie tears, and locked myself in until the very end. 
Here’s where I normally offer one piece of criticism.  I’d like to call this section “discussion” instead.  I glanced at a few of the Amazon reviews and was flabbergasted that anyone could possibly give this book three stars.  I understand what the critiquers were saying.  I’m also pretty sure these people have not read much of Ms. Stievfater. Whether her earlier works with fairies or her short stories, this author does not sit you down with a bib, cut up your food, feed you by hand, and then wipe your slobbery mouth for you.  She likes to leave a bit open, trusting her reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps.  I respect her for this. That being said…I admit, I would have liked my steak cut up a bit more for me concerning the relationship between Cole and Isabel.  After two books of deliciously written tension involving the two, I was still left a tad bit hungry in the end.  Note to Maggie:  I’m still longing for the red coffee pot.  You did such a great job of putting that symbol in all three books, I very much would have liked to have seen its inclusion in the ending. 
Of all of the YA books stretched to more than a mere trilogy, (ones with not nearly enough plot to support the act), this is the first series I would have liked to have seen just one more book.  Alas, the good ones seem to go too soon.  Sam and Grace, I shall sincerely miss you (and Grace, in my happily ever after imagination, I shall buy you your shiny new red coffee pot as a wedding present, for many happy years of caffeinated bliss).  J
Parental concerns and spoilers:  There is mild foul language.  This is one of those series where the characters are engaging in sexual activity.  I personally did not find it gratuitous, fitting well inside the YA norm of giving the reader just enough to make sure you know where it’s going and then letting the camera fade to black.  If at all concerned, I advise you to read first.   
Favorite Forever quotes:
“I didn’t want to talk.  I wanted to curl up against him and fall asleep.  More than anything, I wanted to be able to see him again, to see in his eyes that what we had had been real and that he wasn’t a stranger.  I didn’t want a big gesture, an elaborate conversation—I just wanted to know that something was still the same when everything else had changed.”
“There is no better taste than this: someone else’s laughter in your mouth.”  (I can NOT even begin to tell you how much I love this line).
“Then I began to play.  Variations on a G major chord, the most wonderful chord known to mankind, infinitely happy.  I could live inside a G major chord, with Grace, if she was willing.  Everything uncomplicated and good about me could be summed up in that chord.”
“The thing I was beginning to figure out about Sam and Grace, the thing about Sam not being able to function without her, was that that sort of love only worked when you were sure both people would always be around for each other.  If one half  of the equation left, or died, or was slightly less perfect in their love, it became the most tragic, pathetic story invented, laughable in its absurdity. Without Grace, Sam was a joke without a punch line.”
          --Reviewed by Suzi Ryan

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Keeping the “Me” in Marriage: A Book Review of Kristin Hannah’s “Distant Shores”

Kristin Hannah’s novel, Distant Shores, is not the type of book that makes you walk into walls because you can’t put it down long enough to make it to the bathroom.  Instead, Hannah’s work reads like a warm tidal wave of words that gently washes over the reader.    Neither shocking in originality nor surprising in its plot twists and turns, the beauty of this book lies more in its realistic content, rather than in any gimmicky moments of instant gratification or superbly developed characters.
Much like marriage itself, Hannah’s book requires a slow appreciation and a gentle simmering of mixed emotions.  Instead of being a drawback though, this deliberate measured pace is precisely where the value of Distant Shores lies.  The main character, Elizabeth “Birdie” Shore, is the forty-something mother of two college-aged girls who suddenly realizes she’s lost herself in the years she’s dedicated to being an exemplary mother and wife.  As her husband begins to focus more on his own professional success and her girls are consumed by their college careers, Birdie is left wondering what she has been working towards all these years and why her marriage and life suddenly hold no meaning for her.
Although sprinkled with clichés and riddled with a plethora of lonely sea imagery, Hannah somehow makes these common devices work as metaphors for marriage.  The writing style fits the topic of her book because dissolving marriages are relevant, familiar, and yet often unaddressed in our societies today.  The present unraveling of marriages and families is not something that happens overnight or with a sudden big bang.  Instead, the demise of a marriage is often a surreptitious unwinding that begins with a single thread, continually picked at until it pulls the whole sweater apart.  Like the drip of molasses, Hannah’s words and writing style capture that slow pace of family estrangement.  Bit by bit, the clandestine winds of discontent settle in and carry the couple apart, both physically and emotionally. 
Hannah’s message is a strong one that isn’t articulated quite enough in any medium.  Although the character of Birdie opts for a marital separation in order to “find herself,” the author doesn’t seem to be advocating this path of family destruction.  Both husband and wife realize in the end that despite the bumps in the road, the 24 years of marriage they shared is not something that can be easily forgotten or tossed aside.
Distant Shores is the type of work that can only be what you make of it.  Some readers may interpret it as encouraging an individualistic outlook, but I am confident that the underlying message is all about finding that middle road.  Marriage does not have to result in the loss of self and identity, particularly for the mothers in this world.  Instead, marriage can and should be the bond that helps each partner develop a stronger sense of self with the support and sanctity of a spouse.
While this novel won’t leave you breathless from excitement or emotion, it will provide you with a realistic look at married life with words that mimic the gentle swaying of a summer hammock rather than the rocking of a roller-coaster.  Losing yourself in life and in marriage is not a path worth following, but losing yourself in Hannah’s novel definitely is.
          --Suzy Ismail

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Passion, a Fallen novel by Lauren Kate (a book review)

Passion is the third (but not final) installment in the Fallen series. The second book, Torment, ends with the protagonist Luce jumping into an Announcer (kind of a shadowy, past memory/time portal device), as she is frustrated with her fallen angel boyfriend, Daniel, who won’t tell her anything about their past lives together or the curse that has plagued them for centuries, destining Luce to repeat her life, birth through age seventeen, again and again. Passion is almost exclusively a time jumping tour (feels a little like Groundhog Day goes island hopping), each trip taking her further back into the past with Luce learning a little more about the curse and the triggers that end her life each time, perpetuating her circuitous rebirth.
This is one series I look forward to, one that doesn’t merely get tossed on top of my teetering “To Be Read” pile.  Luce and Daniel are definitely one of the swooniest couples in current YA paranormal romance (anyone who knows me, knows I love my swoon). And this book has plenty…dare I say almost too much. Almost. I can’t believe I just said that! Excuse me while I wash my proverbial mouth out with soap. But alas, it’s true. I learned that even I  have a limit and this book took me right to the edge and dangled my ‘ruby slipper red’ pedicured tootsies over it. So, fellow swooners, rejoice. 
Ms. Kate seems to have had some fun with this book, imagining her characters in different times and parts of the world and how the social conventions of those would affect the couple’s relationship. World Wars I and II are covered. Also 1800 England, 1700 Tibet and France, all the way back until the years tick in reverse, 1046 BCE China and 3100 BCE Egypt. This novel is a bit of  a bonus for lovers of paranormal and historical fiction. 
At this time, I’d like to tip my hat to Ms. Kate for creating a male and female character I adore. Thing is, it’s not Luce or Daniel.  Supporting cast Arriane and Cam win that prize. Now for a deep, dark, secret confession few know: I generally don’t like female characters. Trust me, I want to be all girl power, but very few of the fictional fairer sex garner my admiration. Arriane is a street smart, tough cookie of a fallen angel, capable of kicking any guy’s tail feathers. We get to see loads of her in Fallen, one great scene in Torment,  and barely at all in Passion. L I’d have loved one big scene in Luce’s past life with Arriane, (perhaps while cast in the trappings of frills, lace, and a corset), seriously clocking someone.
So clearly for me…it’s all about the boys. And in this case, Cam, a superbly written character with a crystal clear voice. If Cam saunters into a scene, you know who is speaking long before the first dialogue tag. He’s a demon who’s a little bit sexy and a whole lotta sarcastic. My favorite combination. And we certainly get more of Cam in this book than the last (though I confess, I was still left uttering to Ms. Kate, “Please, mum, can I have some more?”). 
Parental note and potential spoilers: There is very little foul language, perhaps the only usage being H. E. double hockey sticks. All three books contain very descript kisses (Lauren Kate is one of the best writers of kisses) and some very non-descript wandering hands over fully clothed bodies. Keep in mind, Disney has optioned this series, so it would be a good ‘mom/daughter read together’ before it’s in the theaters (Dear Disney producer people: Think Pirates. This series is a bit dark. Respect it. Thank you. P.S. I’ll be there opening night). 
In closing, I say, read the books, don’t wait for the movies.  J

    --Suzi Ryan

Monday, July 11, 2011

Sirenz, by Charlotte Bennardo and Natalie Zaman (A Book Review)

“Frenemies” Meg and Shar are reluctant roomies in a fourth year Live-In program in Manhattan.  While fighting over a pair of red patent Vivienne Westwood heels on the subway platform, a fatal “accident” occurs involving a very superhot, innocent bystander.  During the aftermath, who should show up but Hades, Greek god of the Underworld himself. He offers to undo the damage from the girls’ mishap if they agree to become his Sirens, with a special assignment to lure a famous fashion mogul, whose contract just expired,  to the underworld.
Okay, so Sirenz is NOT my typical read.  I live mostly in the YA world of oblivious female protagonists and enigmatic, brooding boys with far too many secrets. Let’s compare to one of my favorite topics, shall we?  Chocolate.  I love chocolate. Lots of chocolate (just ask my hips). Problem is, after a number of bites, the complexity  of the cocoa concoction becomes muddy and lost.  But break it up with a bit of vanilla? Or a lovely raspberry sauce? Ah, the chocolate once again delves into intricate layers of flavor. So, for me,  Sirenz was a lovely, literary palate cleanser. 
Co-authors Charlotte Bennardo & Natalie Zaman have penned a story of unlikely friends caught up in the conspiracies and meddlings of the Greek gods. Hades takes the center spotlight and no, this is not the animated James Woods’ version of Hades stuck in many of our brains.  Hades is smooth talking, well dressed and kind of…hot.  Demeter, Persephone, and Hera all make appearances and assist  Hades with doling out plenty of red tape and “fine print below.”
A word of constructive analysis, as always. I would have liked Shar’s temptation to have been more of a struggle. Shar was such a strong character (not a bad thing, per se) that I wasn’t worried she’d give in. What can I say…I like to worry and I like to be tempted.  I’ll say no more—don’t want to head into spoiler territory.  
The bottom line is Sirenz is super-quick, funny, and easy to read—perfect for a summertime list of books to conquer, especially as a means to break up whatever your regular read is (unless your favorite reads are light, witty YA, in which case this would fit in nicely with your library).  I deem this book fairly high on my “daughter/mom books to read together” list. There is a mild amount of cussing and just a splash of sexy. 
I shall now return to my regular literary diet of boys I can’t figure out if I want to slap or kiss…or preferably both—at least until Charlotte and/or Natalie’s next book is released.  J
    --Suzi Ryan

Friday, July 1, 2011

The Crankamacallit: A Review of Mimi Cross’s New Interactive iPad Story App

The Crankamacallit.  Say that three times fast and let the syllables tickle your tongue.  The title’s probably already got you smiling inside and out.  With such an intriguing name, you know that lots more giggles are sure to follow in this hilarious interactive iPad App. 
Dr. Seuss couldn’t have penned a more aptly fitting title for such a high-tech tale.  The Crankamacallit is the story of a crazy gadget that piques the curiosity of kids of all ages.  The magical twist to this highly amusing tale is that Mimi Cross, the creative author, has chosen the perfect technology medium to showcase her true visual and literary work of art.  
Displayed on the iPad, the story comes to life and becomes a virtual playground for both children and adults.  Mimi Cross’s creation is clearly a beacon for the future of children’s writing.  A story written in beautiful rhyme with  Polymash created images, The Crankamacallit turns your iPad into a field of recreation with flying balloons, turning cranks, pushing levers, and lots of fun swirly-ma-gigs.
The story-teller’s voice matches the excitement of the App perfectly.  When I first experienced the magic of The Crankamacallit I squealed like a child and couldn’t help laughing out loud at the humorous portrayals of this new gadget.  No picture book could ever let a child explore a characters’ workshop at his or her own pace the way The Crankamacallit does.  In something akin to a technology-bound pop-up book, the surprise that each “page” elicits in this story is compounded by the hands-on approach that the iPad allows.
One of my favorite parts of the App comes early on when navigating through The Crankamacallit creator’s workshop.  One click on the radio image and the user can listen to what the character is listening to!  Lo and behold the lively notes that come out of the radio are none other than the author’s recording of “Alligator Waiter.”  An original song written and sung by Mimi Cross that my own children love and have sung incessantly since the first time they’ve heard it.
Sincere congratulations are definitely in order for the author of this creative tale and for the voice behind the story and the image creators as well.  Bringing a story to life for children has never been done more effectively.  The Crankamacallit truly encompasses the childhood spirit of discovery and adventure and immerses the user in the world of the story more completely than any print form ever could.  Now, if only I could build myself a real life Crankamacallit to help get things done, I’d be an even happier reader!  

Don't have an iPad & want a peek at The Crankamacallit?

OR: Author interview and demo reel halfway down the page at
          --Suzy Ismail

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Lost Saint, A Dark Divine Novel by Bree Despain (a book review)

Daniel and Grace are back for the second installment of the Dark Divine novels.  The balance of power has now shifted.  Grace has freed Daniel of the werewolf curse passed down to him from his diabolical father.  In the process, she became infected herself.  She is now the one with extraordinary abilities and Daniel is left—well, normal.  Her family is crumbling from the disappearance of her brother, Jude, and a quest to find him is underway.  After a strange phone call, presumably from Jude, Daniel starts acting oddly, withdrawing from Grace and lying to her.  Left to fend for herself with the self-seeking call of the wolf within her, she meets Talbot.  Hunky and hot and a bit of a wolf himself, he picks up training Grace to use her abilities where Daniel left off.
I discovered this series through an Amazon recommendation for the author’s first book The Dark Divine.  Curious, I looked up her website and kind of fell in love with the path by which she became a published writer.  Check her out:  I admit I was not optimistic about the first pages of The Dark Divine.  You see, the protagonist, Grace Divine, is a preacher’s kid.  I said to myself, “Here we go again.  Another piece of literature to bash Christianity.”  Growing up, my best friend was a PK and I had yet to see a realistic media depiction of my sweet, kind, and slightly naïve best friend.  But Ms. Despain surprised me.  With tears rolling down my cheeks from the unexpected parallel of the prodigal son (I am forever a sucker for a redemption story), I discovered this author has done the unusual—combined faith with the paranormal. And no, you will certainly not find this series in any Christian bookstore; nor will the majority of non-Christians be offended by her interjections of faith as she depicts a supernatural story affecting a pastor’s family.   
Now that I’ve unabashedly admitted my adoration for this series and author, let me point out a bit of constructive criticism, because—well, because I just have to.  The first book was a bit more…dark.  Let’s say it was a deep 60% cacao bittersweet chocolate.  Anyone who knows me, knows I like my paranormal with one foot in, and then out, and then back in, the dark side.  Star Wars meets the hokey pokey.  This book felt a little lighter to me, perhaps a lovely semi-sweet chocolate, palatable to a greater population of partakers.  Here the main character, Grace, has a self-seeking voice inside her head calling to her to act in a manner she would never normally act, like an imaginary little devil perched on her shoulder.  A perfect place for literary tension.  I would have liked to have seen the author wade into slightly deeper, murkier waters with the theme.  The title of the next release, The Savage Grace (currently slated for release December 2011), tells me I might just get what I’m looking for.
Overall, I’d recommend this series to anyone with an interest in the fantastical.  It’s a relatively clean read, especially considering the genre, with minimal foul language.  Ms. Despain has found a good balance in the paranormal world, combining faith, action sequences, suspense, and romance (with just a dash of steamy).  As with all fantasy, I strongly suggest picking up (or downloading) the first book first—The Dark Divine, then The Lost Saint.  Good beach reads.  Good series for adults to read along with their teens.  I myself am anxiously awaiting the next installment.  J

          -- Suzi Ryan

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Muslim American Mom's thoughts on OBL

I remember that day-- the day the world stood still for a few seconds nearly a decade ago.  September 11, 2001—a day marked significant on my calendar as far back as nine months before the devastating tragedy even took place.  9/11/01 was the expected due date for my oldest daughter—just three days before my own birthday.  For nine months, I looked forward to that day, knowing that my life would change completely thereafter.  Little did I know that my life was not the only one that would change so completely… and not nearly for the reasons I expected.

My oldest daughter came a few weeks early and so I found myself uncharacteristically tuned to a morning talk show on 9/11 while cradling my new infant and concentrating on testing out an innovative baby burping technique.  Feeling triumphant within minutes of hearing a hearty belch emerge from my newborn, I recall glancing up at the breaking news on the screen and wondering why a familiar image of the World Trade Center that I used to pass through to get to work years before was flashing behind a myriad of reporters waving away plumes of smoke.  It’s hard to describe the emotions of fear, anger, and consummate sadness that passed through me that day as the towers, so familiar and so symbolic, came crashing down.
It’s even harder to describe the air of apology and constant explanation I felt I had to assume for many weeks, months, and even years afterwards to exonerate myself.  As a Muslim woman I consistently found myself in the position of having to explain away any link, sympathy for, or association with the attackers.  By label, the attackers shared the same ethnicity and religious affiliation as I do; but by action they defied the very ideals they claimed to kill for.  A basic tenet of Islam, as in most spiritual teachings, is that evil is unacceptable and that goodness is encompassed in those who exercise patience and self-restraint—not in those who kill indiscriminately.  (Qur’an 41 34-35)

While normally I wouldn’t care what associations or assumptions others make of me, in the years that followed, I found myself again and again facing questions and a pressing need to prove that I was not connected with nor related to the terrorists in any way, shape, or form.

Fast forward to today… almost ten years later and somehow that heavy feeling of a requisite apology seems to have crept back into the expectations of many.  As the news of Osama Bin Laden’s death swept the world this week, a sudden piercing of old wounds and new hurt came pouring forth at once. 

This past Monday, walking through the supermarket, I got “the look” all over again.  Shaking off my self-consciousness, I leaned over to compare brands of fruit snacks.  An older gentleman leaned in close to me—I assumed he wanted the sticky snacks and wondered momentarily how his sparse set of teeth would allow him to chew the candies disguised as fruit.

He leaned in closer and asked me in barely a whisper “So, we killed Osama… what d’ya think of that?”

Puzzled, I looked over my shoulder; sure his familiar and conspiratorial tone must be intended for someone else.  But, the tween behind me was busy fiddling with her iPod and the flustered mom a few products down looked completely absorbed in calming her screaming child.  I realized he must have been talking to me.  Unsure what to say, I shrugged, but stayed silent in response.

“No English… hunh?  It figures.”  Disgruntled and even more annoyed at me for reasons I couldn’t really fathom, he huffed and puffed and walked away, muttering under his breath.

Finally shaking off my surprise, I stood up, needing to call out after him—wanting to stop him.  Feeling like I should shout, “Hey, I do speak English.  I am an American and if you really want to hear what I have to say about current events, then just ask me nicely and I’d love to chat for awhile.”

Of course the lines sounded great in my head, but never made it onto my lips.  I stopped myself from speaking, sure that he didn’t really want to hear what I had to say.  It’s much more comfortable for him to continue believing his own assumptions rather than challenging his preconceived notions by listening to me speak my mind and possibly say something that would surprise him.

And I…well… I play right into his preconceptions.  My silence confirms his suspicions and implicates me just as much as if I had stood up and said I was a terrorist sympathizer.  I am as much a perpetrator of negative stereotypes as the old man at the supermarket.  Through my silence, I’ve done myself as much a disservice as the man’s accusatory words.
So, what I couldn’t say in the supermarket, I feel determined to say now.  Not an apology for who I am or for my beliefs.  Not an explanation of how or why or what or a dissection of the news reports that would be neither helpful nor satisfactory.  But, instead, I feel like I need to issue a condemnation of negativity, a denunciation of fear and terror, a pronunciation of what I think and who I am.

On vitriolic comment threads, people often ask why Muslims don’t stand strong and criticize terrorism, murder, and senseless death.   The answer is simple… we do.  Sometimes people just need to listen.  The Qur’an is often misquoted and taken out of context to “prove” that Islam teaches and promotes terrorism, which could not be further from the truth.  The overall message of the Qur’an is that humans together can maintain hope, faith, and peace through the strength of community and an unshakeable belief in the power and goodness of God.   Taking any line of the Qur’an out of context to justify murder is completely misguided and manipulative in the worst way.
Thinking back to that day earlier this week, I realize that shrugging might not have been such a bad thing.  My shrug at the supermarket said so much more than the silence it was taken for.  My shrug encompassed respect for the elderly gentleman, it encompassed pride for my Muslim-American-Arab identity, it encompassed an absolute condemnation of all that is inhumane and a resolute rejection of the murder of innocents in all its forms.  What it didn’t include was an apology or my usual over-wrought explanation.  The shrug said what my words probably couldn’t have.

Things left unsaid are often stronger and more powerful than empty statements.  I might be a proud Muslim, but I am also a proud American.  I want the best for my children, my community, and my country.   We are a Muslim family and we love to help at soup kitchens, march in walk-a-thons, and immerse ourselves in the usual girl scouts, gymnastics, soccer, football and baseball activities.

And so, for us at least, our everyday actions are our way of denouncing terrorism.  Simply being who we are is the best way of shrugging to the world and saying more with actions than with blank expressions.
          --Suzy Ismail

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Source Code: A movie review

There is probably little else in life that evokes as much emotion as the thought of death.  Whether thinking of our own inevitable deaths or the unfortunate deaths of others, the uncertainty surrounding “what happens next” has spawned countless Hollywood interpretations and sci-fi theories grounded in nothing other than avid imaginations.
The sci-fi suspense flick, “Source Code” with Jake Gyllenhaal follows a similar route of questioning offering an eerie interpretation of one “life after death” scenario.  The protagonist, a former Colonel (Carl) stationed in Afghanistan, awakens on a train in the body of a man he’s never met (Sean), sitting in front of a woman he’s never seen, who claims to know him.  Within minutes, the train explodes and the Colonel (who is now Carl, not Sean) is transported back into his body and briefed on his mission.
Throughout the movie, one is left wondering about the Colonel’s existence—is he or isn’t he alive?  What about the body he inhabits for eight minutes during every recurrence?  Is the “Sean vessel” alive or already dead?  Amidst this confusion about mortality, the sci-fi premise surfaces with the idea that following death, every person has an eight minute window or “halo” of life that can be reassigned to another individual, alive in mind but for all intents and purposes, dead in body.  Confused yet?
Once the life and death situation is somewhat cleared up, the movie becomes a straightforward suspense thriller where the audience roots for the good guy and boos for the bad guy, who is, thankfully, not your typical racially-profiled lunatic.  While the movie doesn’t pretend to impart any deep or lasting moral messages, I couldn’t help but take something out of the fascinating view of death that was presented. 
The fear, the apprehension, the questions, the concern and the pure ambiguity that surround death are among the greatest commonalities that connect us as humans.  As a Muslim, I’m often asked about my religious views on the topic.  As do the other major monotheistic religions, the Islamic view of death includes a Heaven and a Hell and a Judgment Day that precedes the Hereafter.  While the issue of death is often seen as a morbid one that many people feel uncomfortable discussing, it is an inevitable reality that deserves further pondering. 
Muslims strive to live each day in preparation for a “forever” afterlife with loved ones.  This makes “morbid” thoughts more bearable with the conviction that something more has to follow this brief life.  Unfaltering faith in something greater than us humans is helpful in reconciling any doubts about death. 
Knowing with full confidence that there is something bigger that connects us all--something greater that holds sway over our lives-- helps somehow ease the impermanence of earth.  An inherent belief in life after death creates significance in the lasting marks that we might leave on others and provides a form of reassurance that our “halo” will continue to glow for longer than the movie’s proposed eight minutes.  In the end, we can only hope that long after we are gone, we’ll be remembered for whatever legacy we have left behind—forever kept alive in the hearts of people we’ve touched and in the minds of people we’ve known.
          --Suzy Ismail

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Beware of Onions

Red, White, Yellow, Spanish, Vidalia, Cipollini.  Up and down, I scan the wall of onion filled baskets, by far the ugliest section in the produce department.  If I didn’t know what an onion was, I’d certainly never pick one up out of sheer culinary curiosity. 
Covered in unattractive papery, peeling skin, some even with dings and spots. Different varieties and colors. Various nuances of flavor. But this ugly little vegetable is a base ingredient in a myriad of dishes among cultures throughout the world.  With a sigh, I tossed my unsightly Vidalia into a plastic bag and headed home. 
Onion poised on my cutting board, chef’s knife in hand, I began my dissection, removing the outer black flecked layers.  Are these specks a bad thing?  I really don’t know but as I peeled, the imperfections fell away, leaving behind a pristine yellowy white layer of flawlessness.  Obsession seizing me, I peeled and peeled, negating the recipe at my side. Each layer became more tender, each releasing more juice.  And there I stood, gazing at the counter, surprised at the mess I’d made in my attempt to find what was at the center, which was just a pinky nail-sized oniony core.  Tears trickling down my face, it hit me…people are an awful lot like onions.
What we look like on the outside has absolutely nothing to do with what is on the inside, buried deep within the sanctum of our hearts.  When introduced to someone new, what do we do?  Communicate, of course.  All very surface, all very polite initially.  If we find some common interests, we take it a little further, peeling a little deeper, discovering what lies beyond the façade.
Peeling people takes great care.  Pause and thoughtful consideration should be taken after each layer, carefully weighing the risk/benefit ratio of digging any deeper.  You must also decide how much you will allow yourself to be exposed, for it is a bit of a game of quid pro quo.  When someone reveals something personal, you must now return the gesture.  Failure to do so, and you risk forfeiting the game, losing the chance for a connection.   
The opposite is also true.  Some people seem to sit around, begging to be peeled, shedding their layers faster than you are ready for.  All you do is ask a co-worker how they are doing and the next thing you know, you’re covered in “I’m eight weeks pregnant and my husband just cheated on me” emotional vomit.  And you didn’t even bring a change of clothes.  Speaking of the workplace, heed extra caution.  You have to see these people every day.  Peel too far for the professional situation and you’re left with a big pot of ‘awkward’ stewing on your desk. 
Sometimes in the process, you’re blessed enough to discover a friend, a friend who on the outside looks so completely different than you—a red onion sitting next to a Cipollini.  Layer after layer, repeated e-mails/texts/conversations/dinner at P.F. Chang’s/coffee at Panera and you’ve found yourself a friend for keeps.  To whom, at the low points of life, you compose epic-long emails to, knowing that out  of everyone, your  friend is probably the only one you’d ever have the courage to hit “send” to.
Perhaps the greatest example for me is the process of falling in love (I am a hopeless romantic, after all). With each personal interaction  layers are loosened—some layers requiring a bit more work as they are jaded from past heartbreak.  Perchance in the process you discover something so sweet and tender…ah true love, then marriage, where you will learn that the peeling yet continues.  It is a lifelong process.  A continual learning experience.
Now, a strong word of caution, oh ye metaphoric onion peelers: just like a real onion, you cannot put the layers back together when you find something you don’t like or when you’ve accidentally peeled too far.  No matter how much you pray or cry, the layers will simply stare back at you from the cutting board, little curled up bowls, leaving you with whatever you’ve found in your dissection…pungent or sweet or downright rotten to the core. 
Concerning people, peel judiciously…and keep a few tissues handy, just in case.
          --Suzi Ryan

Thursday, March 3, 2011


Assessing the Middle East’s voice through Laurie H. Anderson’s novel

My most recent foray into teen lit reading was the amazing 1999 novel, “Speak,” by Laurie Halse Anderson.  Beautifully written and hauntingly disturbing, it tells the heart-breaking story of thirteen year old Melinda’s traumatic silence after a brutal attack at a pre-high school summer party.  Peeking into the troubled teen’s mind and reliving her anxiety, fears, and solitude was both a scary and addictive experience.
I couldn’t help but draw larger analogies to the pain of the character and the pain of the people in the Middle East right now.  While many people can’t understand why several Arab countries are willing to plunge their worlds into chaos simply for the chance to be heard, Anderson’s portrait of a young girl’s silence provides the perfect microcosmic glimpse into the region’s disturbed past. 
To live under tyrannical rule for decades with sealed lips, passively accepting whatever suffering a dictator deems worthy to dole out is both humiliating and frustrating.  Just as in Melinda’s case, the fear, the mistrust, the self-blame and the ultimate hatred can build into a powerful force.  How that force takes shape often depends on a person’s capacity for reaction.  While there are bad apples in every barrel, most of the people of the Middle East seem to have finally found their voices and are not willing to be silenced again. 
As the head Libyan oppressor and his nepotistic government continue to murder the innocent and sink an entire country into desperation, the voices keep getting louder.  For the first time in many, many years, the people of the Middle East are releasing their nationalistic shackles and fighting subjugation together in solidarity.    
Although the interim governments in the few countries who have gained their “independence” may be no better than the previous dictators, just being allowed to verbalize discontent is a huge step in the right direction.  As the protagonist in Anderson’s novel is finally able to break her silence with a resounding, “NO,” so too are these nations finally able to reject years of silence and suppression and rise up against the corruption in their countries. 
Anderson’s novel clearly transcends the typical tale of high school hardship.  Her message that silence is often more agonizing than words is eloquently conveyed to those who really listen.  Whether you’re a broken girl of thirteen or a broken nation of millions, everyone should have the right to shatter the chains of pain and degradation, end the silence, and quite simply
         --Suzy Ismail

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Iron Queen, by Julie Kagawa (a book review)

Meghan Chase is half human/half summer fairy daughter of King Oberon (any other fans of A Midsummer Night’s Dream out there?).  She has also been infused with Iron glamour.  Yes, iron is still a very bad thing for full-blooded fairies here.  And she’s in love with a dark prince from the winter court, Ash.  The couple is an aberration and a disgrace to both of their families.  Ah, forbidden love (I’m SO there).  Refusing to renounce their relationship, they are disowned and ousted from the land of fairy to live out the rest of their days as outcasts in the mortal world. 
The problem for the land of fairy is the iron fey.  Neither summer nor winter can defeat them because of the poisonous nature of iron.  Help us, Meghan Chase, you’re our only hope (I swear I totally hear Princess Leia’s voice in my head right now).  Offering them pardons to return to the land of fey in exchange for a defeat of the iron forces, Meghan and Ash return as saviors, accompanied by snarky Puck (Robin Goodfellow), the other point in the love triangle (come on, what’s a romance without a triangle?).  Thus the stage is set for The Iron Queen, book three of The Iron Fey series, where Meghan must learn to wield the warring summer and iron glamour inside herself to save all of fairy. 
In the first two books, The Iron King and The Iron Daughter, I affectionately referred to Ms. Kagawa as the “Queen of Hyperbole”.  Lots of crying and screaming and gasping.  In this newest installment, Ms. Kagawa seems to have found her stride, toning down her over-enthusiastic writing style just enough. 
As it is with many YA paranormal romances, “the girl” starts out weak, helpless and clueless, depending solely on “the boy” to keep her safe.  In the good books, the girl develops, strengthens, and matures.  This is one that fits into the latter mold.  Meghan is not content to sit by and let the boys fight all her fights for her. Yay, girl power!  The problem (sorry Julie) I had was in suspending my disbelief, not of the endless array of fantastical characters, but in Meghan herself, who grew entirely too fast in her military prowess.  The boys, centuries old and battle tested, actually look at her and kind of go, “Well, what do we do now?”  Really?  And so, much of the book is Meghan bossing around the boys, turning them into lapdogs.  My grandmother  would have said she got way too big for her britches. 
The bottom line is Ms. Kagawa gives me the two things I want the most:  characters I can’t get enough of and dialogue so true to the characters that I can hear them in my sleep. 
I like that we finally get to see a relationship build here. Ash is no longer bound by the politics of the Winter Court and his super nasty mommy.  Part of me missed the moody, dark prince, but only just a tad.  There were scenes for me to swoon over and cry over.  (Okay, only two tears, but tears nonetheless). 
This is not the last installment.  The Iron Knight shall be next. Gone are the days of a good, old-fashioned trilogy.  Regardless, I am certain I will pre-order the next book, most likely pushing aside my current read when the UPS man knocks on my door.  J
Rating:  4 out of 5 hearts
        --Suzi Ryan